Donald Trump is grabbing the UK by its 5G infrastructure with no intention of letting go – no matter who is prime minister.
As the US president meets UK prime minister Theresa May at Downing Street today, he is expected to continue to apply pressure on the British government to ban Huawei 5G kit.
Trump is reportedly prepared to threaten the extent of US intelligence sharing with the UK if it ignores US warnings.
The UK’s current position is to take a risk-managed approach to the Chinese telecommunications giant. That means using Huawei 5G kit for “non-core” parts of the country’s infrastructure.
This hedge-your-bets approach has not sat well with the US, which has repeatedly pressured its allies to ban Huawei over fears China may use security backdoors in Huawei technology to carry out espionage. Huawei has repeatedly denied this allegation.
Trump Huawei: A “strongman issue”
May has, so far, stuck with the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) position. But her imminent departure, and the differing views on Huawei from her potential successors, raises question marks over the UK’s Huawei position going forward and, ultimately, whether to permit Huawei to build the UK’s 5G network. Given the timing of Trump’s visit, it’s an issue that could end up forming a key part of the Tory leadership contest: ripples formed in Beijing, turned into waves in Washington, are now splashing the feet of the Conservative membership.
“I expect this to become an issue in the race to become the leader of the Tory party and hence PM – I don’t think May’s NSC decision will survive,” says Malcolm Taylor, former GCHQ and now director cyber advisory at cybersecurity firm ITC Secure.
Taylor, who also told Verdict that Trump’s threat to block UK access to intelligence sharing group Five Eyes is an empty threat, expects the UK will bow to US pressure and change its mind on Huawei.
“This is the kind of “strongman” issue which plays well with Tory members, whether or not it is right. It is even possible that this becomes a second issue (after Brexit?) where the words of candidates in the campaign become very hard to implement in reality.”
Candidates back Trump Huawei stance
Before his three-day state visit, Trump broke diplomatic protocol by publicly endorsing Boris Johnson, the current frontrunner to succeed May. Johnson’s position on Huawei is unknown, but the former mayor of London has in the past used jingoistic rhetoric on the campaign trail – something that would lend itself well to refuting Huawei.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is the second favourite to be the next prime minister. He told CBS:
“We have to ask as western countries whether it is wise to allow one country to have such a commanding monopoly in the technologies that we’re all of us going to be depending on.
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“We would never take a decision that would affect our intelligence-sharing capabilities with the US.”
The next favourite, home secretary Sajid Javid, told the BBC on Sunday that he would not want “any company, whichever country it’s from, that has a high degree of control by a foreign government, to have access to our very sensitive tech communications”.
“It will be interesting to see what happens to 5G rollout; just how critical is Huawei?” adds Taylor.
UK 5G alternatives
The alternatives for the UK’s 5G infrastructure include Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. However, Huawei’s 5G tech is generally considered to be cheaper than its competitors, as well as being technologically advanced.
“Cost and quality are clear criteria when making technology decisions,” says David Bicknell, principal analyst for thematic research at GlobalData. “And in a normal scenario, the lower cost of Huawei’s equipment coupled with the sophistication of its 5G equipment would make it a strong contender.
“But the perceived security risks – whether they are justified complaints or not – do change the game. Having greater confidence in the choice of a supplier that is not identified by its closeness to the Chinese government, therefore, becomes a key buying criteria. If governments are not going to pick Huawei, for that security reason, then they are going to have to pick from alternatives.
“Whether it will be for the same cost as Huawei remains to be seen.”
Huawei launches PR campaign
As Trump meets with May, Huawei today launched a PR campaign in an attempt to manage the damage, pointing to the £470m in tax revenue it contributes to the UK and the £3bn it has committed to spending in the UK between 2018 and 2022.
Jerry Wang, Huawei’s UK CEO, said: “We have operated in the UK since 2001 and supply all the major telecom operators with our products and solutions. As long-term investors we are committed to helping create jobs and opportunities, building partnerships and supporting local communities across the UK.”
The UK decision on whether to use Huawei is expected to face fresh delays as the Tory leadership contest plays out. At the moment, the indications are that the next prime minister will value the political partnership in Washington over a technological partnership with Beijing.